Researchers Strive to Increase Neurodiversity in STEM Fields

June 7, 2021

There is wide agreement that the United States needs to grow our STEM workforce to remain globally competitive, but how can we ensure the workforce reflects the neurodiversity of our population?  Importantly, do our higher education institutions serve as facilitators or barriers to neurodiversity in STEM?

The National Science Foundation's Big Idea INCLUDES (Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science) Initiative has been focused on transforming education and career pathways to help broaden participation in science and engineering. More recently, NSF has provided funding for a multi-institutional, interdisciplinary team of experienced disability researchers to embark on a journey of discovery and problem solving around these issues. The project, titled "DYNASTEM: Discovering your Neurodiverse Advantage in STEM," is a $100,000 collaborative planning grant involving a partnership among researchers from a number of higher education institutions-including three UCEDDs. The team seeks to better understand how the college experience of neurodivergent STEM students impacts the STEM workforce and how collaborative and systems-based changes to our postsecondary system may increase neurodiversity in STEM.

Despite the alignment between STEM and many aptitudes and skills associated with neurodiversity, neurodivergent thinkers are an underrepresented human resource in STEM fields, and the disparities seem to be widening in science and math. This project is based on the premise that our U.S. college environment is generally designed for the neurotypical, and these design choices likely exacerbate the achievement gap. DYNASTEM seeks to learn more and provide formal research to support this understanding.

Ronda Jenson meets over zoom with project staffRonda Jenson, an associate professor and director of research at the Institute for Human Development (IHD) at Northern Arizona University (NAU), is the lead Principal Investigator on the collaborative, multi-institutional project. Joining Dr. Jenson as co-PIs are Margo Izzo at The Ohio State University (OSU), Overtoun Jenda at Auburn University, Alexis Petri at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and Kelly Roberts, Executive Director at IHD-NAU.  Kiriko Takahashi at University of Hawai'i at Manoa (UH) and Linda Thurston at Kansas State University also are partnering in this endeavor.  Through Dr. Izzo, Dr. Takahashi, and the team from IHD, three UCEDDs are involved: The Nisonger Center (OSU), the Center on Disability Studies (UH), and the Institute for Human Development (NAU).  This impressive and diverse group of disability thought-leaders orient around a singular goal: to create a strategic plan to support the success of neurodivergent students in higher education leading to STEM careers.

As part of the development of the strategic plan, the research team is conducting numerous interviews with various stakeholders, including disability support services representatives, college students in STEM course/majors and alum who identify as neurodivergent learners, faculty in STEM (in particular those with demonstrated leadership in supporting neurodiverse learners), and members of the STEM workforce.

This leadership team believes some students fall out of the STEM pipeline because of challenges they face in college, since the university environment characteristically is charged with social interaction, team projects and constant change-all of which can be stressful, overwhelming, and more difficult for neurodiverse students than for their neurotypical counterparts.  Jenson notes, "We are interested in how the design of the STEM college experience affects the inclusion or exclusion of neurodivergent students.  Of course, understanding the consequences of design also means we better understand how changes can broaden inclusivity."  As one student so eloquently stated, "I'm not disabled-I just go about it differently!" 

For more information about this project, including sharing your lived experiences, readers can contact Lead PI Ronda Jenson ([email protected]).

Photo Credit Right: Northern Arizona University
Photo Credit Left: Ronda Jenson meets over zoom with project staff